My Hero Academia and the Problem of the Supercop

Izuku Midoriya is a classically “good” protagonist. The main character of My Hero Academia is characterized by an earnest desire to help as many people as possible and an unshakeable ambition to live up to the example of his mentor, All Might, by becoming a hero himself. He is smart, good-natured, and very likable.

He can also, as it turns out, be kind of terrifying.

The most recent arc of the anime adaptation of My Hero Academia sees Midoriya matched up against Gentle Criminal, a villain whose goal is to become famous, seemingly by performing acts of small-time theft and trespassing. He and his sidekick La Brava are accidentally discovered by Midoriya, who subdues them before they can disrupt the school festival he and his friends have worked so hard on. 

Gentle’s epilogue shows him nobly attempting to distance La Brava from any serious consequences, the implication being that they’re not that bad, just misguided. The show makes a point of demonstrating in both comedic and serious moments that these two are not the same as the usual maniacal supervillains that Deku and Class 1-A have had to face. Midoriya classifies them as such, even while acknowledging that it was a tough fight.

But during the fight itself, Midoriya uses super strength and bullets made of air to take down Gentle Criminal. Midoriya is clearly a higher class of fighter than his opponents, but he screams like he’s fighting one of his usual antagonists, a full-fledged homicidal maniac. It’s more than a little disconcerting to see him hurl himself at these petty criminals. And it was when Midoriya held the two criminals on the ground and told them not to resist that I remembered what he was in fact studying to be: a government-sanctioned supercop.

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Cop fiction, for the most part, tells three fundamental lies: that cops are basically good, basically competent, and basically successful. Cops that are main characters in films and TV shows usually know what they’re doing, usually have good reasons for doing it, and usually solve the case by the end. There is no real evidence or statistical basis that suggests real police officers share these traits, but that’s how genre conventions work: would you watch a murder mystery featuring a detective who never solved anything? There is more than a little overlap between this kind of fiction and superhero stories; just about every superhero these days is written to be conscious of that line.

Superhero stories are power fantasies; more specifically, they are fantasies that those who are given power will be responsible with its use. We all know that power corrupts, but it’s nice to watch Spider-Man web-sling his way to victory, even if his current incarnation in the MCU is a de facto government-sanctioned supercop, as well. I don’t mean to argue here that you’re a cop if you like superheroes, or that My Hero Academia is problematic, or anything so reductive as that. Police in Japan don’t have the same power, statistics, or stigma as those in the United States, and neither do superheroes for that matter, being fictional. But Midoriya’s impassioned, desperate, violent attempt to stop two trespassers is a tonal misstep, one that reveals just how delicate the line is between plucky do-gooder and oppressive force. 

There is a basic problem with superheroes that work with the government: what is the actual difference between them and a cop with superpowers? When someone like Midoriya isn’t fighting a new big bad that challenges his abilities, does he end up just beating the hell out of minor offenders like Gentle Criminal? 

In the same way that genre conventions protect superheroes from being criticized as supercops, they also make fight scenes feel extra disappointing when they don’t involve supremely powerful maniacs. My Hero Academia isn’t a bad show, but it usually displays much more consideration when dealing with ethical problems like this. Hopefully, we won’t have to see Midoriya beating up random petty criminals again anytime soon.